President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that he would pardon federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana could help more than 6,500 people obtain employment or other opportunities, but it’ll do little for most people incarcerated for marijuana.
Biden also pushed for more governors to follow suit for state offenses, where many marijuana charges are filed.
“Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said.
Biden’s move recognizes the problem of mass marijuana incarceration, said Morgan Fox, political director for the nonprofit National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“It should be a measure of hope,” he said.
Last year, about 1,000 people were charged with violating federal marijuana laws, according to a United States Sentencing Commission report cited by NORML. Nearly 7,000 were federally charged with those offenses in 2012.
Across the nation, about 500,000 people were arrested on cannabis-related offenses in 2019. Most of those charges were for state offenses, the FBI said.
Marijuana accounted for more than 1 in 3 possession arrests that same year, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project. In 2009, that number was more than 1 in 2.
Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana and 31 states have decriminalized the substance. Racial disparities in drug arrests persist even as the legal marijuana industry remains dominated by white entrepreneurs.
Nearly 70% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, according to Gallup. More than 80% of Democrats support legalizing the substance, while Republicans were nearly evenly split on the question.
Some Republican lawmakers criticized the president’s plan. A spokesperson for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said: “The governor of Texas can only pardon individuals who have been through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles system with a recommendation for pardon.”
Natalie Papillion, director of strategic initiatives at the Last Prisoner Project, praised Biden for first focusing on repairing the harms of the war on drugs as opposed to other aspects of marijuana legalization but said there is work to ensure that more people get justice.
“Before we talk about how much money we can really make, services and so forth and so on, we need to talk about how we can unwind the harms of those who have most been impacted, people who have been arrested and put into jail,” Papillion said.
She urged the president to pardon all nonviolent marijuana offenses, not just simple possession.
While on the campaign trail, Biden said that marijuana should be decriminalized and that records should be expunged. Earlier this year, Biden granted nine people with federal marijuana offenses clemency.
Maritza Perez, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Federal Affairs, said there should be fuller relief for people, including resentencing, expungement and removing immigration consequences.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but definitely does not do enough to really help repair the harms of the drug war,” she said.
Perez said she hopes Congress will act on several bills dealing with marijuana legalization.
There are several measures being considered. The Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement Act, or HOPE, seeks to help states with the financial cost of expounding cannabis offenses.
The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act and the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act both seek to find a process to expunge certain marijuana offenses. They also decriminalize the substance.
Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and history for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac.